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Vegetable rot cancer risk for Kenyans

While the dangers of eating grains infected with aflatoxins have been well-documented, there is little information on a common occurrence with Kenyan and African farmers in general– consumption of spoilt vegetables and fruits from farms.

Fruits and vegetables account for the greatest agricultural loss and waste; 30 per cent of what is produced. In Africa, storage sources for these food groups are extremely limited and well out of the reach of most farmers and consumers. However, as food prices keep rising and fresh vegetables become increasingly inaccessible to a majority, cheaper/ free rotting foods are finding their way onto our plates.  

For three years now, *Derrick (not his real name) has been farming tomatoes, onions, and French beans for local and export markets on three acres at Giaki, Meru County. “Once we are through grading and packaging them for market, we are often left with a mass of disfigured and diseased produce. My farm labourers and I will share the salvageable ‘leftovers’ amongst ourselves and I’ll pass out some to my neighbours who given the current cost of living crisis and persisting high food prices are very grateful.”

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His act of altruism is however endangering their lives as these foods contain poisons in the form of harmful fungi, bacteria, and toxins which can cause severe stomach upsets, vomiting diarrhoea, muscle aches, headaches, fevers, convulsions, and allergic/ toxic reactions. In severe cases; immune deficiency, organ damage, cancers, and death. 

Although most plant diseases do not infect humans, scientists advise against consuming rotted or mouldy fruits and vegetables. Removing diseased parts of vegetables and fruits partly reduces the amount of toxins ingested. Some fungi and their toxins can however diffuse into parts of the fruit or vegetable that do not exhibit any rot. Cooking may also result in the decomposition of some toxins though not all fungal toxins can be destroyed by high heat.

In a study of public health risks associated with fruits and vegetables in Nigerian farms and markets, 79 per cent were found to be contaminated with fungi.  

Fungi (Moulds & Yeast) in vegetables & fruits

Molds are microscopic fungi that live on plants. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, some cause allergic reactions and respiratory difficulties. 

The WHO warns that funguses produce, mycotoxins which are naturally occurring toxins produced by specific moulds sometimes found in food. 

These toxins can cause adverse health effects that range from acute poisoning to long-term effects such as immune deficiency and cancer.

In Southwest Nigeria, so common is the consumption of rotting tomatoes and peppers that locals have a name for it, ‘esa’. Used in making soups, they have gained increased popularity due to the rising cost of living, as they cost a fraction of fresh vegetables.

In September 2018, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, warned Nigerians against consumption of rotten tomatoes and peppers as it predisposes them to cancers. 

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“Rotten tomatoes contain microorganisms that induce cancer. Once tomatoes become rotten, they will have microorganisms, mostly fungi, and fungi in rotten tomatoes produce mycotoxins which are deadly and induce cancer. They also cause immune deficiency in humans and animals. Mycotoxins are deadly and can cause all sorts of poisoning in the body. Some research suggested that mycotoxins could also cause kidney damage,” said the agency’s Deputy Director Mrs Christiana Essenwa.

These toxins are particularly a menace as they cannot be washed away and are heat-resistant. She advised consumers to keep off rotten tomatoes which are cheap in markets, saying, “It is better to spend money to prolong life than to use such money to buy death.”

Fungal infections also reduce the quantity and quality of sugar and nutrients in fruits. They also make the fruits easy to contaminate with foodborne pathogens.

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